Engineering the Earth

Editor's Rating: star rating

Jeff Goodell sizes up the silver-bullet technologies that may be needed to combat rising planetary temperatures

How to Cool the Planet

By Jeff Goodell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 262 pp; $26.00

A small group of prominent scientists held three private dinners at a posh San Francisco restaurant in December 2008. Barack Obama had just won the White House promising, among other things, federal action to combat climate change—a complex but well documented problem becoming more urgent by the month. The dinners were called to weigh a possible new weapon against global warming that goes by the clunky name of "geoengineering."

In attendance was Ken Caldeira, a climate modeler with the Carnegie Institution for Science who also happens to explain science better than most of his peers. He articulated a central conundrum for the group: "If you are pushed against the wall in a Senate meeting room and asked what you can do to cool off the planet in a hurry, what do you say?"

That's one question probed in Jeff Goodell's judicious and much needed new book, How to Cool the Planet. Just two years after those dinners, geoengineering has become a flashpoint within the already ferocious climate debate. The British Royal Society has taken a whack at defining the new buzzword: "[T]he deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system, in order to moderate global warming."

Diverse motivations are bringing together scientists, and now politicians and entrepreneurs, around this ambitious goal. Some are climate hawks who would outlaw coal-burning today if there were another way to keep the lights on. Some want to ease the impact of climate change on the poor. Others hope to make a buck. Caldeira would like to see carbon emissions driven down to zero and hopes geoengineering might buy us time to reach that target.

Another leading thinker on the topic, Lowell Wood, retired as a nuclear weapons expert and threat evaluator from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2007. He moved to Seattle to join Intellectual Ventures, the big-think technology startup run by former-Microsoft (MSFT) Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. Myhrvold looped in Bill Gates. Before you knew it, geoengineering—a cocktail-party curiosity in 2006, when Goodell began this book—was commanding serious attention from public- and private-sector luminaries.

A lot of kooky geoengineering ideas have bubbled up in the popular media. Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who avoids the over-the-top approach of some of his colleagues, also resists the temptation to write about these, focusing instead on ideas that are beginning to attract research dollars. There's what Wood calls "doping the stratosphere," in which governments release tons of aerosol particles into the sky. They reflect the Sun's light (and explain why big volcanic eruptions tend to cool the climate for a few months or years). A similar notion, "cloud brightening," would pump infinitesimal water droplets into the air to buffer ocean clouds' reflectivity.

The public failure of a startup interested in fertilizing oceans with iron soured many on geoengineering the oceans. The plan was to add iron filings to nutrient-poor parts of the seas, where they might stimulate plankton growth and draw carbon dioxide down into the ocean food web and sediment trap. Then there's Energy Secretary Steven Chu's pet idea of whitening rooftops around the world to reflect solar energy back to space, which has drawn scattered attention.

Which authorities would regulate any of these moves, and how, is anyone's guess, and therefore a looming diplomatic and legal problem—beyond the still-speculative nature of much geoengineering science.

Climate action in Washington has stalled in no small part because of the feared costs to businesses and consumers of rising energy prices. The price per ton of CO2 pollution might run anywhere from $10 to $30 in a cap-and-trade program like the one President Obama has proposed and the House passed last June. Geoengineering efforts, on the other hand, might cost just 0.7 cents per ton. "This is, by any standard, peanuts," Goodell says. He asks a page later: "Who can resist a cheap fix?"

Well, many environmentalists, that's who. They fear that geoengineering would let polluters off the hook and exacerbate the underlying problem, which is an atmospheric destabilization more dramatic than anything in the recent geological record. Some polluters have embraced geoengineering precisely because of its possible low price. Along the way they've picked up advocates in Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, whose bestseller SuperFreakonomics includes a chapter on geoengineering that commits two basic errors: oversimplifying Earth system science and falling in love with the aerosol particle solution.

Dubner and Levitt trumpet a simple answer to climate change in part because they didn't do enough research to understand how little they did. By contrast, Goodell understands there's no approach to the problem that doesn't confront fundamental questions, such as: What is the Earth for? Where does nature end and humanity begin? There is no trace of climate alarmism or political advocacy here. Goodell takes a detailed look at the range of hard choices humanity faces and explores how complicated moral and ethical considerations will dictate our response.

Goodell is also a skilled writer. He splices complicated ideas into pithy turns of phrase: "What kind of person dreams of engineering the entire planet? And can we trust him?" Some of his aperçus are delightful. Atom-bomb scientist Edward Teller "had eyebrows like the wings of a B-52."

Geoengineering, says Goodell, may be an inexpensive way to "cool the planet in a hurry." Or it could be a costly mistake. We don't know yet. In a final chapter called "Human Nature," he writes: "I do believe this is what it comes down to. We can use our imagination and ingenuity to create something beautiful and sustainable, or we can destroy ourselves with stupidity and greed. It is our choice."

Eric Roston is the author of The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat.

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